My partner Captain Carnivore and I had lunch at Capital City Barbecue on Saturday after hearing raves from several friends. If you’re a foodie, it’s hard to resist a place that offers both authentic barbecue and authentic Vietnamese food, both of which require some serious knowledge and skill to cook. It also seemed like a dream come true that the Captain could have barbecued meat while I continued my life-long quest for the Peak Pho Experience.
The first thing I noticed after walking into Capital City Barbecue is that it’s very small; there are only five tables.
The second thing was that about a quarter of the interior space is occupied by a cellular phone store with a smiling salesperson, walls of cases and cords, and a shiny, gold Buddha waving from his spot in the merch.
The third thing of which I took note was a woman seated at the table closest to the order window with an enormous bowl full of broth, noodles, and other savory objects. She caught me looking, and smiled. “It’s so new it isn’t even on the menu,” she explained. “Spicy pho.”
“Good?” I asked her.
“Oh my God, SO good” she said.
“I’d like what she’s having, please,” I told the young man in the window.
“We’re having it, too!” said a woman at the neighboring table; she was sharing another enormous bowl with her daughter and grandson. “We saw hers and we had to try it. It’s great.”
Choosing the spicy pho (properly called Bún Bò Huế) meant that I’d have to try a Banh Mi sandwich another day, but I did request a couple of Vietnamese Egg Rolls to tide us over until the entrees were ready. I also had to make myself stop thinking about smoked brisket Guinness chili.
The Captain evaluated the sandwich choices that included the “Barnyard,” a creation made of “Beef brisket, pulled chicken, pulled pork, bacon, Gouda, cheddar, topped with an over medium egg, tomato and onion” on a sweet baguette. Although we are definitely trying that someday, he chose the more moderate “Steer Clear,” described as “Beef brisket topped with red onion jam, smoked Gouda and bourbon BBQ sauce.”
After paying a surprisingly small amount of money, we settled in at a high two-top with stools where we could easily overhear phone sales and the regulars who kept coming in to order their Saturday lunch and were greeted by name at the counter.
The eggrolls came out first, a promising mahogany shade and literally sizzling hot. They were shatteringly crisp, and full of fresh vegetables, pork and shrimp. They were to mass-produced eggrolls what canned peas are to freshly shelled and steamed spring peas right out of the garden.
Next came the condiments for my pho, a photogenic arrangement of greens including cilantro, mint, thin slices of jalapeno, a lime wedge, Thai basil on the stem, and a pile of bean sprouts. I also requested Sriracha and hoisin sauce, and the bottles arrived just before a gigantic, red bowl full of broth, noodles, vegetables, thinly sliced beef and rounds of what I later learned was a kind of Vietnamese pork sausage.
Above: pho garnishes
Above: spicy beef and pork pho
The Captain’s sandwich and house-made coleslaw came shortly after, and I took a bite of each (to insure quality); we agreed that the brisket was tender and flavorful without losing its structure, and that the combination of meat, smoky Gouda, sweet bun and tart/sweet red onion jam was really satisfying. (There is no photo of the sandwich because by the time we remembered to take a picture we had eaten half of it.)
Tasting barbecue was just a distraction from my real work of customizing the pho, which is half the fun of eating it. First, I tasted it and decided the broth was rich and spicy, but could use a little brightening. I added torn cilantro, basil and mint leaves, a squeeze of lime and a dainty pile of bean sprouts for crunch, and tasted again. Although it was really fine by that point, I like to mix up a little Sriracha and hoisin to stir in, so I did. (Caution: I like things really spicy, and you might not need any Sriracha in broth that starts out that spicy.)
By the time I was finished playing with my food, the Captain has finished his and requested a smaller bowl so I could dish up some pho for him. We then stopped talking as we alternately slurped broth and ate noodles and meat with chopsticks. In my experience, silence during the consumption of pho is an indicator of its goodness.
As we ate, both Woman #I and Table with Kid bundled up and left, saying goodbye to us on their way out. Both the husband and wife owners stopped by to see how we were enjoying our food, and the husband asked the Captain if he had saved room for dessert. They had peach or blueberry cobbler, he said, and peanut butter cheesecake.
“I wouldn’t turn down a little peach cobbler,” said the Captain.
“Want it warm?” asked the owner (hereinafter known as “Satan”). The Captain said of course he did, and the owner apologized for not having any ice cream to put on top.
The cobbler wasn’t what I think of as cobbler; I suspect this was a more Southern variety in keeping with the southern nature of the BBQ. It reminded me of an upside down cake, with sweet, hot peaches covered by a thick blanket of soft, buttery cake. I don’t usually eat dessert at lunch, and at first it seemed strange to chase spicy pho with peach cobbler but the bites I had were soothing and mellow after the big, vivid flavors and textures of the soup.
Capital City Barbecue is not in East Lansing, but it’s also not too far, at the corner of W. Saginaw Highway and MLK near St. Lawrence Hospital at 1026 W. Saginaw. It’s open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and they seem to do a brisk take-out business.
There are many vegetarian options, including egg rolls with tofu instead of meat, and there is a vegan pho on offer. It’s a good, un-fussy place to take kids, but maybe not too many kids at a time since the largest table seats four.